Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Coming To Terms

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several conversations on other blogs and in e-mails about the extremely problematic and increasingly ridiculous subject of labels. To be brutally honest, I’m getting very tired of the whole thing.

I think over the course of the past two years I’ve called myself everything in the darn book: gay, ex-gay, chaste gay, homosexual, Side B, struggling homosexual, same-sex struggler, post-gay, and I think at one point I called myself a “gay monk” to a friend, which he thought was funny. I used to think that these labels mattered, but you know what? I’ve used every single one of those labels even though my basic beliefs and actions haven’t changed over the past two years.

Sure, I’ve made some mistakes, had some struggles, and my opinions have become a bit more evolved, but I really have been the exact same person over the past two years: a regular Christian guy who happens to like other guys, and who is chaste because of his understanding of Scripture and his desire to follow it. I was that guy in the moments when I called myself “ex-gay,” and I was that guy when I called myself “gay.”

Now granted, I know labels can be misleading. I don’t like to call myself “gay” and leave it at that. If I’ve gotten to a point in a relationship where I feel like telling someone that sort of thing, I usually through in “…but celibate” after that particular label, because otherwise it might give them the idea that I’m pursuing gay relationships, and I’m not.

But either way, I’m really not at the point where I want to argue about labels anymore. I’m not alone in this either. Courage Man linked to a great speech by Camille Paglia (one of my favorite writers), in which she expressed her annoyance with being labeled as a lesbian just because she is in a romantic relationship with a woman. She feels that it’s stifling and puts one in a sort of box. I agree. Sexuality labels are stifling, and even people, like Paglia, who aren’t Christians, can think so.

But here’s where it gets sticky. It’s not all about me. I may personally hate labels, but you know what? They aren’t for my benefit in the first place. Whatever theological-theoretical-post-modern ideas we have about language and meaning, the majority of the population doesn’t, so if we’re going to use a bunch of made-up (or simply ambiguous) words to describe ourselves, our ideologies, and our sex lives (or lack thereof) we need to be expressly clear about what we’re trying to say. Otherwise, we’re just going to be confusing people. I think Disputed Mutability wrote it best in a post of hers (which I humbly note that I helped inspire). ;-)

I think this issue isn’t just important in regards to how we represent ourselves to the world (and by “we,” I’m talking about guys who deal with same-sex attraction, which might be the most neutral term out there). It’s also important to us as a community of sorts. Labels have a tendency to split hairs that don’t need to be split. Seriously, let’s say we have a guy who calls himself “ex-gay” and a guy who calls himself a “Side B gay man.” They are the same age, are both attracted to men, both belong to the same denomination and have the same beliefs about Biblical sexuality, and both have been chaste for the same amount of time. They deal with the same struggles and everything. Why would they care how the other labels him when they are leading the exact same lifestyle?

Somehow, though, people (on both sides) do, and it kind of gets on my nerves. Why make distinctions between such phrases as “homosexual desire” and “same-sex attraction?” Why make such divisions over something as malleable as language? I personally don’t care what people call them, as long as they are being honest and frank about where they are in their journey. That’s right, I’m even okay with someone who calls himself “ex-gay” as long as he is expressly clear about what that means for him.

So at this point, to quote a hilarious secretary that I had the pleasure of working with recently, “I just don’t care, man.” I really don’t. I’ll do my best to tell people whom I am without having to rely on these ambiguous terms, and if I do use them, I’ll make sure to define exactly what I mean. I have far too many other struggles to worry about what four-letter word I’m currently using.


Ophir said...

Huh, I'm surprised and then again somewhat not surprised that you like Paglia. Seems a lot of "anti-establishment" "gay" guys (yes, I know, a label with all a label's limitations) like her. It's refreshing to encounter original points of view that make you think in directions you haven't necessarily thought before and when I find someone like that I often get hooked and go on a reading-spree. I've read a good deal of Camille's writing that I could find online, though I haven't read Sexual Personae or any of her other books. Though I often disgree with her I find her "heretical" thinking about cultural topics very interesting. Lately though I feel I've kinda exhausted her (or should that be I feel she's exhausted me?) and I find her new Salon articles to be a little jarring. She doesn't really break any new ground anymore and some of her anecdotes and favorite observations seem to crop up in every article.

As for the whole label thing. I think we've had this discussion before, and basically yeah it's frustrating but those who are close to you will learn your nuances soon enough and those that aren't don't need too.

Jay said...

I enjoy Paglia just because she's very different and often more intellectually honest than most liberal writers (which is why a lot of liberals dislike her). She can be exhausting, but then again many intellectuals can be. At the very least, she's not as pretentious as some other people like Harold Bloom (and I still find it odd that he was her mentor).

Anyway, I didn't add this to the post, but I'm going to be at the beach with my family for a week. I'll reply to everyone's comments when I get back! Take care!

RikFleming said...

While I can certainly understand how frustrating language, terms and labels can be, as one who grew up in a polyglot family and a student of multiple disciplines I suppose I am just accustom to this sort of thing.

The difficulty of using terms exists in many fields of study and it increases in its complexity and confusion as you speak across different schools of thought, philosophies, cultures and so forth.

I have come to accept and expect to have to frequently ask, "What do you mean by that?"

Sometimes it isn't just the words you use but also the inflection of your voice. For example, "Dude" in California can mean a dozen different things depending on how you say it.

It is also just as important to consider your audience as it is to use a word according to its denotative or connotative sense.

Of course, words like "gay" are different because of the political, moral, religious and social associations with it or to it.

When I was a kid there was a local pizza parlor called "Gay 90's Pizza." It was named after the 1890's, not the 1990's, when the word "gay" had a different connotation to it.

As for labels, I pick my own and I choose not to be identified by what tempts me but rather with the One who died for me - I am a Christian.

Neo said...

I think you've identified the main issue I have with labels - especially "gay" - in that they are ambiguous. I don't think "ex-gay" is any less ambiguous than "gay," so I don't really like it for that reason. I suppose either one could be fine in a context where it will actually be understood. I generally only approve of labels if they are clearly defined by the person using them.

As I've mentioned before, I also found that terms like "gay" can be harmful for some people. For me, rejecting that term, while nonetheless coming to terms with having SSA, was a significant part of the healing process. For an admittedly "ex-gay" understanding of this point, see http://www.peoplecanchange.com/Masculinity.htm
However, this may depend on your understanding of what the term means - back to the point about ambiguity. If "gay" really just means "same-sex attracted" and nothing more to you, I don't see any problem with using it. It certainly isn't worth endless debates. In general, though, I wouldn't use the word "gay" to describe others unless they apply the term to themselves. I wouldn't want to force it on someone after knowing how much I disliked it.

I tend to stick to "SSA" when talking about same-sex attraction just because it is unambiguous. (Of course, this implies using different terms to talk about related issues - "homosexual behavior," for instance. Using "SSA" as a boilerplate substitute for another label like "gay" doesn't help anything. There's no such thing as "SSA porn.") I think in large part because it hasn't become a part of popular culture, it doesn't have the associations that a word like "gay" does. For me, most of any labelling debate boils down to being clearly understood, and not forcing ideas or identities on people that they would not agree with.

Of course, for me the issue can be even further complicated - I don't think I could call myself "gay" when I generally have more sexual attraction towards females than males. I will use "straight" at times, but I will admit it is an oversimplification. "Bisexual" might be the most accurate, but even that term doesn't explain me or my feelings all that well. As with anything else in these debates, I much prefer descriptions to labels.

Brandon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon said...

I agree. I think people get way too bent out of shape over all the labels and trying to label themselves one thing or another. Like Rik, the only label I've ever really liked or cared to place upon myself is Christian. But if talking about my sexuality, sometimes it just depends on who I'm talking to as to what words I use. And I suppose the context determines this as well. I think I generally use the phrase "gay, but celibate" or "same-sex attracted". It just depends. And even then, I usually have to explain myself.

Have fun at the beach! :)

Musicguy said...

Are you trying to convince your readers or yourself? I rememeber a time in my life where I went into great detail like this to explain things. That went away when I came out of the closet and stopped trying to rationalize how I felt. I hope it all works out, whatever the case (and label) might be.

Jay said...

Rik: I am a Christian. Unfortunately, you can't just go through life not calling yourself anything else. I'm also male, white, a Southerner, a teacher, etc. People may want to know more about you than simply that you're a Christian, so that's where these other little labels come into play.

Neo: I don't try to force labels on people who don't use them in the first place. Of course, that rarely comes up in my day-to-day life, since I don't know any SSA strugglers in person who would get offended if I called them "gay." I think it's important for us to be honest first, and then we should be respectful of others and how they choose to label themselves. We should encourage others to use unambiguous language when talking about their attractions and struggles, so being respectful doesn't mean enabling shaky language.

Brandon: Back from the beach, and it was awesome!

Music Guy: I know what I believe, so mainly I'm just trying to let my readers in on some new thoughts and vantage points. I am "out of the closet," though. That's why this is such an issue for me, because my friends and family have a tendency to put labels on me that aren't always accurate. It would be easier if I just started having sex so they could call me "gay" and leave it at that. It would also be easier if I bought into a lot of the ex-gay Kool-Aid and pretended to be heterosexual, because then they could just call me a "former homosexual." As it stands in the middle, it's a little more tough.

ophir said...

Hey, Jay. Happy to hear you had fun at the beach, even though I still can't figure out what all the fuss is people make about the beach.

Reading your comments and thinking about it again, I still don't see this issue as a major problem. Of course it is annoying and frustrating sometimes, but it's fighting windmills. I certainly sympathize with you, seeing as I don't fit many conventianal moulds (but don't we all think that about ourselves). It's easy to see the limitations of labels as they're applied to you but it may be helpful to think about what labels you apply to others and ponder how accurate they may be.

If your concern about identifying or being identified as "gay" is that, without any clarification, people might assume you're also sexually active - that's just bad judgment on their part, all the more so if they know about your religious beliefs. Would they assume a young unmarried heterosexual Christian couple were sexually active? If people hear you're gay and start accusing you of things you're not doing you can calmly correct them and kindly point out to them that they may want to think a bit about how they're faring with certain obligations. If people try to hook you up you can say you're not interested or you can make clear your beliefs. Whether or not you view celibate romance as an option for you, in light of your experience, is for you to decide.

In any event I think you'll find most people share the sentiments of the secretary in your anecdote.

ODRE_NUEVO said...

hello jay greetings God bless you

Neo said...


Just to clarify, I wasn't accusing you of forcing labels on others; I was just trying to get my thoughts across accurately about this topic. (I'm not sure if I came across as though I were.) In any case, I think we generally agree on these things.

donsands said...

I'm a grateful sinner saved by grace. I'm Reformed in my Bible doctrine, and I'm married to a wife, whom I never deserved, and still don't.

Jesus Christ is my Lord, God, Savior, and Friend. I love Him for all He is, and that's because He first loved me, and filthy blaspheming drunken bum, who was also a self-absorbed Christ hating fool.

There's a few labels to help others see who i am.
I don't particularly like labels, but if they help with the relationship, then good.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Appreciate your thoughts.

Lord's grace, power, and love be upon you. Amen.